The Dean Blog

September 23, 2009

Communicating with Students and Parents – An Exercise in Perspective Taking

Filed under: University Issues — LBA @ 5:39 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

In an article recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept 21, 2009), author Steve Cohen reports on a study of 1,100 college bound high school seniors, conducted for zinch.com.   Cohen’s study examined the decision making process regarding collegiate education and the factors that impact that process.  Some of the results weren’t particularly shocking, but others I found much more so.

Cohen’s respondents indicated that parents have the most impact on student decision making regarding college selection.  Because many students are minors at the time of selection, and many will have some or all of their education funded by their parents, this probably isn’t too shocking.  It’s somewhat more surprising that no other group, including friends, counselors, teachers, and coaches, was even close to as influential as parents.

So, how are those parents, and by extension the students, selecting a college?  The results of this study suggest that cost is extremely important, with more than half of the participants indicating that it is a significant factor, and almost a quarter saying it was the most important element in the decision.

University members frequently believe that the reputation of the school is very influential, and this was supported in Cohen’s study, though more so for parents (45%) than their students (35%). School location, as we might predict, was a factor in the decision making process.  However, while 1/4 of parents wanted the student to live at home, only 6% of students desired to do so.  Interestingly, the ultimate choice made was within 1-2 hours of home for almost 60% of the students. Small class size, a major part of the US News and World Report rankings, was important to only about a third of the students. This suggests that students and possibly parents may be less concerned with the size of their classes than we believe them to be.

Universities utilize a variety of means to communicate information with students and families, including open houses, online efforts, visits to area high schools, targeted mailing, etc.   For this group of respondents, visits to campus were the most influential means of informing students about the school, and most students visited between one and four schools (with parents generally accompanying them).  During their visits, students found the tours that they took with campus guides (often students) to be largely influential in their ultimate feelings about the school.  Websites were also very important, but admissions/counselor visits to the students’ high schools, direct mailing, and college fairs did not appear to be particularly useful in the decision.

What can we, as a university, take away from this?  We need to be able to take the perspective of the students and parents in order to effectively communicate information in a way that will encourage attendance at Rowan.  First, as Cohen argues, we need to communicate with parents.  They do have an impact, and we can’t assume that providing information only to the student will result in the parent having equal information.  Second, we need to focus less on factors that interest us, even if we really find them important (class size, for example) and more on those that are of interest to parents and students (making the cost of college more affordable, proximity/ease of travel to home, university reputation).  Finally, we should carefully attend to those channels of information that students and parents find most influential (having many opportunities for campus visits that feature well trained and enthusiastic tour guides and possibly some sort of financial incentive for touring the campus before admission – and developing an informative and easily navigable website for students and their parents).

As we experience cultural shifts, from our preferred media forms to our economic health to students’ level of connectedness with family, the process of college selection will also shift.  If we, members of the Rowan community, wish to see students here who have selected a school that truly fits them and works for them, we have to provide them with the information they and their parents want/need in the venues that they seek it.

So, how do we, as administrators, faculty, staff, alumni, and students of Rowan University, best prepare ourselves to adequately understand the communicative preferences and needs of future students and parents as they embark on the process of choosing a university?

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